In a New Series on Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, #MeToo Gets Complicated

But if “Impeachment: American Crime Story” recognizes #MeToo, that complicates the narrative and maybe even serves as a course correction. When the movement first emerged, the emphasis was on punishing bad actors and weeding out the problematic people – a hunting and purge drive that has spread to other areas of social justice. But in this narrative, the world of the 90s is not a binary place, divided into innocent women and predatory men. It is a complex web of motivations and actors large and small, in which women are not only complicit. They run the show for the most part.

Lewinsky never fit the #MeToo template perfectly. Unlike the Clinton prosecutors, who complained of unwanted advances – like Paula Jones, whose sexual harassment lawsuit led to Lewinsky’s demise – she always maintained that their relationship was amicable. She was not a pure, defenseless victim. She was a person of agency who was capable of making bad decisions of her own. On the series, she talks glamorously about Clinton, clinging to the jewelry the married president gave her and desperately waiting for his late-night calls. She doesn’t want a payout, settlement, settlement, or public apology on the series. She wants him.

This is not intended to exonerate Clinton himself – for spectacularly poor judgment and for participating in a power dynamic that was grossly uneven and cruel from the ground up. The series doesn’t let him off the hook, even if it suggests he had real affection for Lewinsky; Almost every word he says to her and anyone else is a whispered lie to save his own skin. But when it comes to making Lewinsky suffer so much that her life has really been turned upside down, the real guilt lies with women.

There’s Ann Coulter, played by Cobie Smulders, as the die-hard leader of a right-wing conspiratorial salon who seeks every nook and cranny to bring down Bill Clinton. (“This is a coup, and we are the coup,” she purrs to her compatriots once, holding a bottle of wine.) There is Betty Currie, the President’s personal secretary, whose kindness to Lewinsky obscures the fact that her loyalty is firmly on Clinton’s side. There is Susan Carpenter McMillan, an anti-abortion activist who convinces Paula Jones to refrain from a violent settlement offer and pursue a lawsuit – paving the way for Lewinsky’s downfall and leading Jones straight to the slaughter. There is Lucianne Goldberg, a literary agent who reaches for dollar signs, who convinces a bureaucrat named Linda Tripp to record her extensive phone calls with Lewinsky and provide the hard evidence that will conquer the scandalous public.

And above all Tripp, the real protagonist of the series: the person who sets the action in motion and has to bear the consequences of their work. In many ways, the entire series functions as a sort of supervillain origin story, a study of how an obscure government employee – disgusted by what she sees as the subordinate behavior of the Clintons – makes her way to the center of a national scandal. In this tale, Tripp accidentally befriends Lewinsky, becomes her confidante, records their conversations with a view to possibly exposing them, and convinces herself that she is still on the lookout for Lewinsky’s best interests. “She is a child. She needed someone to save her. If it were my own daughter, I would have done the same, ”she tells Jones’s lawyers. The series posits that her motivation is ultimately less political than psychological: an ordinary wallflower is suddenly at the center of the story, which is important for the first time in her life. It’s exhilarating.

How much of this version of Tripp’s story is true we will never know; Tripp died of cancer in 2020 so she is not available to share her page. (Lewinsky, for her part, does not seem to have forgiven; she refers to Tripp’s betrayal in a Proust questionnaire in this month Vanity fairIt is ironic that the series, even if the series tries to understand Tripp, often portrays it as a caricature: a caricature, clumsy, divorced middle-aged suburb, lonely and sad, eating Utz potato chips and unpacking microwave food. Yet it portrays them as a person who is in control of their destiny, painfully aware of how their life is about to change, and stoically accepts the pain when culture uses them, mocks them and spits them out.

In fact, Tripp is getting a fairer shake from the show than Jones. While the script never doubts Jones is telling the truth, it portrays her as a cartoon haywire unable to understand how she’s being manipulated and unable to keep up with the sharks. Even though the series suggests that late-night TV was ruthlessly cruel for Lewinsky and Tripp, Jones makes it the target of the same kind of jokes. This could be due to the condescension of garden variation on the coast or the fact that Jones lost credibility with the Hollywood left when it eventually endorsed Donald Trump. But as Amanda Hess wrote in The New York Times, the fact that Jones was never taken entirely seriously is a noticeable stain on #MeToo, evidence that stories of sexual misconduct are not always fully told or widely heard.

Overall, like Lewinsky, Jones acts as a victim of the women around her, the actors who really drive the scandal. When Starr wants to give up his investigation and admit he doesn’t have the resources to bring down Clinton, Coulter and Goldberg scurry around finding creative ways to dig up the worst of the dirt. While Jones’ attorneys seem content with a financial settlement, McMillan may play the game of chess and see a way to overthrow a presidency. The women are often the smartest in the room, the most determined, the most competent. (When Hillary Clinton finally gets screen time on episode 7, she immediately proves that she’s better at PR than any other White House employee.) And, by definition, they’re the cruellest for playing their roles so well. In a 2019 piece in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan examined how human resources departments have facilitated sexual harassment in the workplace by developing a series of processes that ultimately protect those responsible. Ultimately, this is a more nuanced way of seeing #MeToo overall – it’s not just a problem of men in need of reform, but of a system that selectively ignores the humanity of some people in the service of the needs of others.

That fits in with the way the series deals with Lewinsky himself, which supposedly gave her input in every scene. The scripts do not spare her criticism or portray her as a heroine at the moment; it is naive, privileged, fleeting, and pathetically self-deceiving. But she is human. That seems to be the main message of Lewinsky’s current public incarnation, in which she portrays herself as an anti-bullying attorney, a voice for people who are being scrapped by modern culture. Although she has written On how #MeToo has changed her perspective on her personal history, she seems to focus less on a specific cause of social justice than on the broader goal of imposing kindness on culture and pointing out the dynamics that enable people to experience the have more power to mistreat the people who have less of it.

The need to change that power – by telling the right stories – seems to be key to understanding why Lewinsky wants to be on a series that once again makes the darkest moments of her life public. When Lewinsky emerged from the shadows for the first time in 2014, I wondered if it was wise to build a public identity around these old events, pose for glamor shots, and once again open up to accusations that she was frivolous and self-centered. But now I understand their calculation. The story was too big, too broad, too memorable; it would rule their lives no matter what. So what better way to assert your own power than to say yourself, with warts and all? To own it and, yes, to benefit from it – because in the end it is complicated and is hers.

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